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How to Build Resilient Teams and Lead Through Adversity Here's what CEOs can do to lead their teams effectively in times of crisis.

By Doug Walner

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If there's anything we've learned over the past few years, it's that plans can be derailed at any moment without warning. Businesses that were fortunate enough to survive the pandemic know that it took a lot more than luck to make it through, and several are still facing the repercussions. From Covid — to the Great Resignation of 2021 — to a looming recession in 2023, several business leaders feel like they just can't catch a break. Though we've learned to adapt and even advance in times of uncertainty, it doesn't mean thriving during these times is easy.

I've spent the last 25 years leading businesses, but I've learned more as a CEO in the past few years than ever before in my life. The single most important thing a CEO can do during times of crisis is to lead by example and set a precedent for their team. Below I'll outline some of the best ways I've found to do that effectively.

Related: How to Lead Effectively in Uncertain Times

What does uncertainty mean for CEOs?

93 percent of CEOs are preparing for a recession in the next 12-18 months. Historically, recessions occur on average every 9-10 years. As of now, the last recession was in 2008 — so it's evident that we are long overdue.

While recession talk is nothing new, and it's still unknown how drastic the economic correction will be, 51% of CEOs have been considering workplace reductions as part of their preparation since Q4 of 2022. This kind of uncertainty surrounding job security can disrupt an otherwise healthy company culture, with employees feeling like they are walking on eggshells and wondering if their jobs could be in jeopardy.

During times of crisis, teams look to their leader to show the way. A good CEO will take this responsibility seriously, setting the tone for the whole organization and establishing an environment where there's trust and respect. We've seen some poor examples of leadership that have been widely publicized in recent years, and it reminds us that even leaders of top-performing businesses are flawed. While we can't be perfect, we can choose to do the right thing and accept the responsibility of leading through adversity.

1. Practice transparency and effective communication

When it comes to communication, more is better than less. This is especially true during times of uncertainty. Keeping employees in the loop is key to building trust and showing that you care about their well-being. Let them know what's happening in the industry, what your expectations are for how they will adjust in response and how you plan to move forward.

Several CEOs back off when it comes to transparency out of fear that they will share too much and it will have the opposite effect as to what is desired. There is a fine line to balance here, and it is ultimately up to the CEO to determine which information is best to share with employees and how it should be shared.

Transparency helps prevent miscommunication and rumors from spreading in the company, reinforcing team unity and alignment. While you don't need to involve your employees in all company decisions, it's important to give them an opportunity to share their opinions and concerns and acknowledge that their voices are valuable. I believe it's best to take in employee feedback for consideration and to help guide your decision-making. Then, relay information once details have been established and discussed among company leaders and you have a clear idea for direction.

Related: 4 Steps for Building Your Team's Resilience

2. Prioritize mental health and well-being

In recent years, stress levels among American workers have drastically increased due to the unpredictable nature of the economy. A survey by the American Psychological Association revealed that 75% of Americans report feeling more stress than they did five years ago. Furthermore, 83% of U.S. workers suffer from work-related stress, with 25% saying that their job is the main stressor in their life.

As a CEO, it's important to make an effort to help reduce stress among employees by prioritizing their mental health and well-being. This can include offering flexible work hours, providing resources and access to therapy services, encouraging breaks throughout the day, allowing time for physical activities and implementing policies that promote employee autonomy and self-care.

Additionally, it's important to create an open dialogue where employees feel comfortable expressing their feelings and concerns. Businesses that prioritize mental health are proven to have better employee retention.

At my company, Align, we have an Unlimited PTO policy. The policy is simple: Get your work done, and you're free to take off whenever you want. We use this policy as a way to show employees that hard work is appreciated and rewarded — and that their mental and physical health matters. I encourage all my team members to take off when they need a day to recuperate to help maintain a healthy mindset and avoid burnout.

3. Base decisions on company core values

People tend to panic during times of crisis, which is why it's the worst time to be making important decisions. Planning ahead is key, but like I mentioned, it's not always easy to plan for the unknown. What you can do is plan where you will reduce costs if and when a recession hits. You may plan to cut people, salaries or departmental resources and spending. But whatever you decide, make sure it makes sense for your company.

If you get stuck, go back to your core values. Your company's core values are what define your organization and should guide all decision-making, big and small. Use them as a compass to help steer you in the right direction, even during times of uncertainty.

Your core values must live in your company at all levels from the top down. If you act with regard to these values at all times, you are more likely to create a trusting culture and gain respect from your employees.

At Align, we stress the importance of core values at all times, starting from the beginning with the hiring process. We make sure every new hire knows our core values and understands what it means to uphold them in our day-to-day work and relationships. This alignment over common values is critical to maintaining a cohesive culture and being able to persevere as a team through hard times.

When it comes to teams, resilience is not a trait — it's something that must be cultivated through careful planning, transparency and trust.

Leading a team through adversity is an immense responsibility. It can be difficult to manage during times of economic hardship or political instability, but by following these principles and inspiring your team to stay positive, you will come out strong.

Related: How to Stay Calm in a Crisis and Lead Your Team Through Anything

Doug Walner

CEO of align

Doug Walner is the CEO of Align Technologies Corp. Doug has led companies for over 25 years across several industries including human capital management, aviation, media, and consumer goods. Doug served as CEO of PSI Services LLC, Co-CEO of Stamps.com, and Chief Commercial Officer of Row 44.

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